The people speak: let us have a vote


(12/21/2008)

by Sarah Squires

A proposal that would remove the public’s vote for certain county positions met a swell of opposition Tuesday night, when County Board members heard from residents who want to keep elected positions elected.

“I haven’t seen any rationale [for this],” said Ruth Marg of the proposal. The proposal would transform the positions of county recorder, treasurer and auditor from elected posts to appointed jobs. “I, for one, would rather see the people elected,” added Marg.

The board didn’t vote on the issue Tuesday night, rather indicated that the idea would be further discussed at a meeting in January.

The proposal would cut voters out twice -- first, the county would request special legislation to allow it to switch to the appointed system without holding a referendum vote on the question. If commissioners support the measure and special legislation is granted, voters would lose the ability to vote on the three department head positions. A voter’s only recourse would be through a “reverse referendum,” in which 10 percent of county voter signatures would be needed to get the elect versus appoint issue onto the ballot.

On Tuesday residents gathered despite the snow to send a clear message to board members: no way.

Marg said that she feared cronyism could taint the county’s proposal, while resident Judith A. Fritz questioned what guarantee the currently elected officials would have that they’d keep their jobs. She asked that the county take its time studying the matter to make sure it’s the best decision for Winona County. “And not because other counties are doing it,” said Fritz.

“I think it’s incumbent on us to keep government close to the will of the voters,” said Don Evanson. Ron Doblar took it one step further -- suggesting that the County Board become appointed, too.

Since the board decided not to make a decision on the issue, it was advised not to comment on opinions expressed by the public during the hearing. But outgoing commissioners Dave Stoltman and Jerry Heim were given the chance to speak on the issue, as Tuesday’s meeting was their last.

Stoltman said that when he first ran for office ten years ago, he wasn’t in favor of the switch from elected to appointed for the three department heads. But as time went on, he said, he changed his mind.

He said that the three currently serving in the positions, auditor Cherie MacLennon, treasurer Sue Rivers and recorder Bob Bambenek, were the “most qualified people you could ask for.” But, said Stoltman, as they near retirement, the county needs to be able to ensure that their replacements are qualified for the highly-technical work.

Stoltman said that qualified, experienced candidates may not consider running for office because it could threaten their current positions. He questioned voters’ ability to review experience and qualifications as well as a personnel panel could.

“They won’t put out resumes,” said Stoltman of potential candidates for the positions, adding that people wouldn’t really know whether they were qualified.

Stoltman’s comments were met with a chorus of “yes they will” and “that’s silly,” from the audience. But he continued, asserting that the positions were different from other elected seats, like the county board. “They don’t make decisions for the taxpayer. They provide a service to the taxpayer,” he said.

County Board Chair Dwayne Voegeli has questioned in the past whether the move would really threaten the democratic process given the three positions are rarely challenged in elections. On Tuesday, he said that attendance at the meeting despite the weather “speaks volumes about [residents’] commitment to democracy,” and told the crowd that before the board makes a decision on the matter, it would be sure to gather more of the public’s ideas and thoughts.

 

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